Following the one-year anniversary of anti-government protests in Iraq, protesters returned to the streets calling for transparent elections, youth employment, and an end to government corruption and foreign interference. Like in 2019, the main demonstrations took place on 1 October and 25 October, with Baghdad’s Tahrir Square at the epicentre of the movement. Thousands of Iraqis also gathered in cities across the Shia-dominated south—including Najaf, Nasiriyah and Basra—to demand the fall of the ruling class. This is all following the brutal response of the state one year ago, where violence aimed at terrifying protesters led to some 700 deaths and thousands more injuries. Around 2,800 demonstrators were also arrested, as per CIVICUS.
The oppressive state response has had a rallying effect on the Iraqi protesters, and Baghdad demonstrator Mustafa Makki told Reuters of the “simple and legitimate” demand that “the killers of the protesters be prosecuted.” The violence that met demonstrators one year ago has clearly galvanized the movement and has provided extra incentive to take to the streets. Ali Khrypt, a Baghdad-based activist speaking to Middle East Eye, described why the Iraqi youth are continuing to demand change, despite the huge death count since the start of the campaign and the momentum-sapping coronavirus pandemic which continues to claim lives in Iraq. The 2019 protests, he explained, succeeded in mobilizing large parts of the population as “now every Iraqi home and every young woman and young man rejects and knows what the mistakes are and criticizes the work of government.”
Iraqi journalist Mustafa Saadoon has a warning: “Demonstrations will not bear fruit unless authentic political currents emerge from the heart of the protests.” He cautions against “protest for the sake of protest” and calls for political organization of the movement, accompanied with clear goals and a cohesive agenda. He argues that the popular movement needs to turn into real political action or risk being undermined and hijacked by government forces.
Nevertheless, the demonstrators—which represent a cross-section of society and are mostly under the age of thirty—are making their voices heard and sowing the seeds for change. In the face of government repression, they continue to challenge the power of a narrow elite that have been able to monopolize power and pervert democracy. State powers and militia groups continue to fire live bullets and use tear gas on the protesters, yet they refuse to be silenced. When one takes into account the deaths caused by both tear gas and live ammunition in last year’s demonstrations, this becomes even more honourable.
Demonstrators in Baghdad chanted, “No to Iran, no to America” and called for an end to the corrupt political system that has prevailed since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. They reject the growing influence of Iran in Iraq’s internal affairs and accuse the country of complicity in Iraq’s governance failure. For the West, this acts as another reminder of the harmful effects of military intervention and neo-colonialism in the Middle East, which has yet again failed to deliver the democracy that it promised.
The period since the beginning of demonstrations on 1 October 2019 has seen major societal upheaval, including the ousting of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and the nomination of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. However, the country remains beleaguered by corruption and unemployment, and protests have been revived this year in an attempt to force real reform. Despite the decentralized nature of the movement, there is hope that political change will follow. Al-Kadhimi has appointed long-time activists among his group of advisors and, significantly, promised that early elections would be held next June. If this becomes ratified by parliament, a central demand of the protesters will already have been achieved.
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